Video snacking

by Rob Horning

30 May 2006


If once I was a curiosity for not carrying a cell phone, I think I have become downright irritating, performing a willfully perverse act of downward mobility pointless protest against a world that has left me behind. I’ve become a kind of vegan of technology, with this annoying prediliection against cell phones that inconvenineces everyone around me and seems vaguely hypocritical and entirely self-defeating. It comes across a thtis point as a peculiar selfishness about myself, a rejection of the access everyone I know has been encouraged (by the ubiquity of cell-phone technology) to expect a right to. No wonder the surveillance society proceeds with little protest; we are already used to having intrusions at any time and at any place, we are used to paying companies to keep track of wherever we are at any given moment and distribute the information freely. Paranoid, I know. What am I trying to prove anyway? What’s next? Am I going to insist on an outhouse, and only communicate through tin cans connected with string?

Popular culture makes general assumptions about what people require to live, which helps foster collective national aspirations, shared dreams and values. It channels desire into anticipated sluices so that business won’t be wrong-footed, and it creates a mundane sense of normal that can give one a sense of stability in the most chaotic of personal situations. The routine presence of cell phones have become part of that matrix of normality. In America, a cell phone has become like a car: It seems unfathomable that you wouldn’t have one if you could afford to. To lack one is to be a second-class citizen, like someone who rides the bus. To the rest of the world, you are either poor or you are one of those benighted refusniks trying to make a point by making oneself miserable and wasting time craving after abnormality.

It was brought home to me how my culture had passed me by while I was reading this article in the New York Times Magazine about TV programmers designing shows for cell-phone screens so that users may indulge in “video snacking”—watching three-minute shows at lonely, vulnerable moments where more immersive entertainment is not readily available and there is no real person one can actually call. The article could have been discussing developments in Swaziland for all these changes would affect me. American culture has become path dependent on cell-phone technology and I have stubbornly refused to get on the path. The further along the path society goes, the more irrelevant I’ll become.

So take this observation with a grain of salt. The writer, Randy Kennedy, cites one of the producers making the comment that content on a phone becomes personal in a way it doesn’t in other media. A celebrity on the screen is saying, in effect, “Hey, it’s me, on your phone. I’m talking to you.” The phone seems to have the effect of creating intimate space in public places; the little screen carves out a deeply private realm. Once we let entertainment and ads reach that space, we’ve permitted them into a much more vulnerable place. Ads, entertainment already draw much of their power from flattering viewers, making it seem like their act of attention to the ad is actually in fact the ad paying careful attention to them, trying to make them feel special. Althusser, in his essay about what he calls “Ideological State Apparatuses,” makes the argument that this is how we are defined as subjects in the ways our institutions want us to be defined—the insitutions hail us, and we respond, molding ourselves to become the sort of person they were calling out to, seeing ourselves as that kind of individual without once suspecting this personality was induced in us. This effect is only going to intensify when cell-phone screen are enlisted in the process. The weird susceptibility we have when we are alone, truly alone—and we are always alone in our private cell-phone space—will be exploited like never before as we are encouraged to make decisions while we are atomized in that isolated, alienated place. Nothing curbs impulsiveness like the good sense of other people; if ads can reach us when we’ve chosen to shut them out, they have us right where they want us. Just as food snacks satisfy that part of us that has rejected the rigors of family meals and all the socialization and traditions passed along there, video snacks satisfy the aspect of ourselves that wants to feel more important than everyone else, that craves flattery at the expense of cooperation and coordination with what’s around us. The cost for this is that we chase a shadow, calling it our true self, while the stick figure projecting that silhouette is shifted around idly by culture industry conglomerates (now in league with telcoms) casting about for profits.

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